The Act was used against workers organising for better conditions from its inception until well after the first United Kingdom Trade Union Act 1871 was implemented, which secured the legal status of trade unions.
Under the Master and Servant Acts enacted in the Australian colonies in the 1840s, employees who left their employment without permission were subject to being hunted down under the Bushrangers Act.
The law required the obedience and loyalty from servants (i.e., workers) to their contracted employer, with infringements of the contract, or disobedience, subject to criminal penalties, often with a jail sentence of hard labour; and the calling for strikes was punished as an "aggravated" breach of contract.
According to ABS figures, in August 2013, there were 1.7 million members of trade unions in relation to their main job (17% of all employees).
The Australian labour movement has its origins in the early 19th century and includes both trade unions and political activity.
At its broadest, the movement encompasses an industrial wing (Australian unions) and a political wing (Australian Labor Party).
Craft unions in Australia began in the early 19th century as craft associations of highly skilled urban workers who sought to organise (form a labour union), to increase their low wages and decrease their high number of hours.
By 1902, the Master and Servant Act 1823 had been modified to include forfeit of wages if the written or unwritten contract for work was unfulfilled.